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Meet Mr. Martin Chouinard - Immaculate Heart of Mary School

Please provide a background of your academic experience (high school, college).

I went to Holy Cross High School in Waterbury, Connecticut, graduating with the class of ’11. In high school I studied a broad spectrum of subjects, from chemistry and human anatomy to creative writing and film. During these years my career goals changed more times than I can now remember. What I do remember most of all was discovering what the liberal arts were. I left high school with no clearly defined plans for my future beyond the resolution to study the liberal arts at a faithful Catholic college.

I cannot speak highly enough of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. It gave me everything I had wanted in a Catholic liberal arts college, as well as many things that I never would have expected but for which I am very grateful. Whenever I need to explain the value of my education to a skeptic of the liberal arts, I always start with three points: logic, writing, and ethics. At Thomas More College I was exposed to, and unconsciously adopted, the Aristotelian system of thought, based on cause and effect, deduction and example, classification and definition. Everyone, no matter what his or her vocation, needs to know how to reason correctly from observable first premises to true conclusions, and learning how to think is an inestimable advantage. Likewise, everyone needs to know how to express their thoughts clearly in writing. At Thomas More College I went through an extensive two-year writing program, imitating the styles of great writers and undergoing hours of peer review and revision. When it came time to prepare my senior thesis defense, I was very grateful for the time spent improving my writing. Finally, Thomas More students learn ethics. Through the writings of Aristotle and Aquinas, we learned that ethics are based not on custom or feeling, but on the purpose of each thing, a purpose that exists in itself regardless of our opinion of it.

All these points are true, but they were not even my favorite parts of college. Thomas More College has a humanities program that spans all four years. It examines the intellectual history of western civilization through a reading of the most influential works of each epoch, from the Greek philosophers and poets as a freshman to the moderns and a graduating senior. The result is a bird’s-eye view of the culture we live in and an increased appreciation for the subtle interplay between ideas and events. My students would tell you that no matter what I teach, sooner or later I always come back to its historical and intellectual context within the tradition of western thought. In the same vein, I studied abroad in Rome for a semester with my class and was privileged to be selected for a summer program in Oxford England in 2014.

Like many Thomas More College students, I was drawn to teaching after my graduation. After four years of the academic life where study, writing, and presenting were the order of the day, I had fallen in love with it. Teaching at IHM gives me the opportunity to continue engaging the best that has been thought and said. I graduated from college in May of 2015. This has been my first year teaching at IHM. In addition to my academic experiences, I have taught CCD and run retreats at my parish, volunteered with the Naugatuck Special Olympics, and informally taught friends fencing at the YMCA.

What classes did you teach at IHM last academic year?

Last academic year (2015-2016) I taught the Junior High English and Spelling class and the High School Logic and Rhetoric class and the Latin classes. In addition, I inherited the High School Literature class last October. I also host a reading group on Thursday nights, where we meet to discuss cantos from Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

Explain what you covered in your classes.

The English and Spelling class covered basic English writing, spelling, and grammar. The students worked through the Institute for Excellence in Writing program, learning how to summarize a variety of sources and outline the essential points. The students then practiced writing clearly and eloquently based on the details from their outlines. In the same class, the students learned twenty five new spelling words each week, on which they were tested on Friday, and did grammar exercises from their textbooks with my supervision.

My Logic and Rhetoric class with the high school students was exactly what it sounds like. For the first semester my students studied formal logic, culminating with deductive reasoning and the rules of a valid syllogism. In the second semester we studied rhetoric. For the third quarter the students learned general techniques and the specifics of persuasive writing and speaking, while analyzing examples of each. We also discussed the proper purpose of rhetoric according to St. Augustine. The last quarter was devoted entirely to debate, allowing the students to apply all they had learned and rhetorically engage each other on a given topic.

My Latin students worked through Fr. Baumeister’s New Missal Latin textbook. They learned the ins and outs of Latin grammar while building a working vocabulary and practicing translations. They also practiced reciting basic prayers each day in class. In the Literature class the students read from a huge selection of works. I took my cue from the textbook, Joy in Reading; in the class the students learned to appreciate great literature and recognize why a work is considered great. This has involved identifying literary devices, studying the context and themes of a text, asking what purpose the author wrote for, and looking and how different authors have answered life’s perennial questions. When I took up the class in the first quarter the students were in the middle of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. They studied Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, and a selection of poems and short stories. In the third quarter I taught a brief overview of classical mythology. We finished with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.

Why are each of these classes important for a students' development?

As I mentioned regarding my own education, being able to understand and communicate in English is essential for all students, regardless of their plans for the future. In some schools the classics are now considered inaccessible for the modern student, who never learned how his language worked at a competent level. To fix that, you need to start with the basics of spelling and grammar.

Being able to combine ideas accurately to reach valid conclusions is the business of logic, and sorely lacking in the world today. As for rhetoric, St. Augustine says it better than I ever could: “Now, the art of rhetoric being available for the enforcing either of truth or falsehood, who will dare to say that truth in the person of its defenders is to take its stand unarmed against falsehood? For example, that those who are trying to persuade men of what is false are to know how to introduce their subject, so as to put the hearer into a friendly, or attentive, or teachable frame of mind, while the defenders of the truth shall be ignorant of that art…who is such a fool as to think this wisdom? Since, then, the faculty of eloquence is available for both sides, and is of very great service in the enforcing either of wrong or right, why do not good men study to engage it on the side of truth, when bad men use it to obtain the triumph of wicked and worthless causes, and to further injustice and error?”

Latin is essential because our civilization is still, at its heart, Roman (or at the very least running off the last fumes of Rome). The proof of this that men still say “by Jove” but nobody says “by Thor.” As such, Latin remains an elevated language, the language of the sciences, the foundational works of literature, and, an infinitely higher use, the Catholic Mass.

Regarding literature, I’m going to borrow a quote from Chesterton: ““One poet did not provide a pair of spectacles by which it appeared the grass was blue, or another poet lecture on optics to teach people to say that the grass was orange; they both had the far harder and more heroic task of teaching people to feel that the grass was green. And because they continue their heroic task, the world, after every epoch of doubt and despair, always grows green again.” I would only add that a working knowledge of the Greek and Roman myths is essential to any student of western literature. The great writers like Shakespeare and Dante assumed that their audiences would possess as much. And time spent reading Shakespeare or Dante is never wasted.


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